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Despair for Democracy — but Don’t Give Up, Argues Documentary

What Is Democracy? takes a sprawling look at who governs and how.

Dorothy Woodend 18 Sep

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and culture for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

Astra Taylor’s new film What is Democracy? starts with a question and then adds another and then another until there is a teetering pile of queries, heaped high.

“Can democracy ever live up to its promise?”

“What does it mean to have a happy life?”

“Do people want to rule themselves?”

“Is democracy worth fighting for?”

And running underneath it all, that old Socratic question: “How shall we live?”

With the U.S. on the eve of midterm elections, and British Columbians ready to choose new mayors and councils, it is an interesting moment to think about what the word democracy actually means, but also how the idea has been manipulated, abused and stretched wildly out of its original shape and form.

In looking for answers, the film takes a perambulatory approach, wandering from Athenian olive groves to Floridian beaches, with an array of different folk, including Cornel West, Eleni Perdikouri, Silvia Federici, and George Papandreou (the former prime minister of Greece). Along the way, different ideas, interpretations, experiences and ideologies are held up to the light. And by that, I mean talked about.

Taylor says she made a deliberate choice not to impose an overriding, omniscient narrative. The intent, she said in a phone interview after the Canadian premiere of her film at the Toronto International Film Festival, was to make the film as democratic as its subject in presenting “different kinds of intellectual authority.”

As a result, Taylor has created a true essay film, in the classic sense of the word’s meaning: an attempt to figure shit out. If ever shit needed figuring out, it is now. As she notes: “Everywhere you look, democracy is in trouble.” (Though maybe it was ever thus… )

In examining how we came to be where we are, the film goes back to the creation of the very first democratic state, and Plato’s Republic. But even Plato wasn’t too sure that democracy stood a chance, built as it was on fractious, contrarian human nature.

There never was a great idea that humans couldn’t mess up.

As philosopher Eleni Perdikouri states in the film, it all began with the question of happiness.

“What makes a life worth living?” she asks. For the ancient Greeks, she says, a good life meant a good city, one with unity and justice for all. But even at the very invention of the idea of democracy, a snake lurked in the garden. Plato saw wealth and its counterpart, poverty, as threats to the vision of a good city. Perdikouri explains that rich people want to become richer and split the city into rich and poor, which leads to civil war and sows the seeds for tyranny. “Poor people will follow any demagogue who will promise to overthrow the rich,” she notes.

1200px version of what-is-democracy-large.jpg
Silvia Federici talks democracy with the filmmaker Astra Taylor in What Is Democracy?

Right on cue, up pops the yam-coloured POTUS, declaring, “Ruled by the people, folks!” Donald Trump’s appearance is followed by a painfully on-point Platonic quote: “The greatest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone worse than oneself.”

But the question that the film keeps circling back to is whether people are really made to rule themselves. The narrative turns in a widening gyre, collecting opinions, contradictions and paradoxes — Rousseauian, Dostoevskyian and Platonic — into a whirlwind.

As Cornel West says, “Plato’s challenge will never go away.” As West describes it, the concept of democracy flies in the face of evidence that suggests people aren’t good at self-rule. The burden is simply too great, he says. West talks about how great social change does not come from majority rule, saying school desegregation in the U.S. would never have come about without some dictatorial force being applied. Going up against so many examples from human history to argue democracy can work may sometimes feel foolish. But as West says with a pirate’s grin, “Count me in the crowd of the holy fools!”

In the debate about what constitutes true democracy, Taylor folds in conversations with philosophers, academics and activists, but gives equal weight to ordinary folk. Scenes of West in full verbal flight are laid next to a group of high school kids talking about their struggles to get a hot lunch. A barber who served a nine-year prison sentence speaks with startling clarity and erudition about what it means to be observing society from a cage.

Out of this juxtaposition comes something that is fully alive. The darkness between arguments — the pause, the void, the uncertainty — animates Taylor’s film. It doesn’t claim to have the answers, and although there is the occasional grand polemic, mostly it involves the slow process of exchange and inquiry.

Some of these question and answer sessions go better than others.

In the bright Miami sunshine, a group of ordinary people are assembled on a park bench and asked a series of questions.

“Do you live in a democracy?”


“Do you vote?”


There you have it. Rousseau’s Paradox in the flesh. Or, as philosopher Wendy Brown asks, “How do you make democracy out of an undemocratic people?” Brown asserts that democracy does not come naturally, but must be actively cultivated. But the forces ranged against the idea of collective self-determination are enormous and global in scope, whereas democracy is rooted in place and people. It doesn’t seem a fair fight, and perhaps it really isn’t.

“What we see today, I think, is a strong temptation to just turn the whole business of governing over to the technocrats,” Brown says. “Not just to corporations, not just the wealthy, but to essentially human versions of algorithms… Or algorithms themselves.” The result is a world largely ruled by profit and loss and by what enhances value and depreciates value. “It’s a very narrow universe of thought and of conduct… I find that terrifying,” she says.

Plato’s warning that economic disparity leads inevitably to tyranny takes on an even more ominous scope when considering global capitalism. What counters globalized capital, but globalized democracy? But whether that is even possible remains to be seen.

Still, Taylor’s film is alive with febrile hope, offering not only wrangling, tangling debate, but real situations, lived experience and democracy in the raw. Even as the social body is sawn apart, there are people working to stitch it back together again. Often these are folk who have historically been left out of the discussion — women, people of colour, gay and lesbian people, and kids.

In What Is Democracy?, genuine action happens not in the Oval Office or a UN conference room, but in makeshift medical centres that sprang up in Greece under austerity measures, a workers’ co-op that employs refugees from across Latin America, or a living room in Miami where young activists debate who gets to be a citizen, whether mobility is more important than capital and, ultimately, “Who gets to count and who gets counted?”

The spot fires of real democratic change are burning hotly in the polling booths, with the Voting Rights Act in the U.S. under attack by those who want to disenfranchise minorities and the poor. As Henry “Mickey” Michaux Jr., who worked with Martin Luther King Jr., bluntly states in the North Carolina General Assembly, “The Klan now dresses up in suits and vests.” He goes on to say there is not a single person of colour in the Republican caucus in North Carolina. The incestuous mingling of money and power hasn’t changed much from the times of slavery, but voter suppression laws constitute a new assault on the very heart of democracy.

As oligarchic money, power and influence work to dismantle U.S. democracy, it is an increasingly ugly and violent struggle. Following protests over a police shooting in Charlotte, N.C., a young activist named Delaney Vandergrift describes a white man getting out of his car and pointing a gun at the crowd. Vandergrift is asked, “What does democracy feel like?” She answers, “It doesn’t feel like being scared for my life.”

In one of the film’s most startling scenes, a trio of ER surgeons talks about the reality of treating unending waves of trauma victims in a large Miami hospital. One notes the U.S. Army sends its medics for pre-deployment training there, as there is more trauma in Miami than in an active combat zone. The doctor then adds, “Trauma is a political disease.”

The despair that comes from poverty is also about disparity, with extreme wealth right next to extreme poverty. This kind of inequality leads to increased violence, soaring homicide rates and poor health. It is also not accidental, with democratic government being co-opted by corporations.

Asked how to cure the social body, the doctors answer as one: “Education from the very beginning.”

But even that is not without complexities. In fact, it is where the struggle begins between those who have power and those who have none.

As Taylor notes, “Public education is both a social leveller and enforcer of vast proportions.” The film includes a discussion with a group of high school kids who, when asked about how they feel about their ability to have a say in their lives, are very clear about the fact that people who talk back or demand change are punished. As one young girl says, “I don’t think people in a higher power really want to hear from a black mom in the ghetto.”

But as the debate erupts about the kids’ struggle to get a warm lunch at school, something very interesting happens — we witness the birth of collective action. The kids take apart the hypocrisy of the adults around them, resulting in a spontaneous round of applause and shy smiles from the young firebrands around the table. Suddenly they are united and self-organizing. A fighting unit for social change and hot food!

There it is folks: demos (people) cratia (power) in the flesh. A far cry from Thomas Carlyle’s theory “great men both make and break history,” as Taylor points out.

But the old white men are holding on tight. Even at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, the most high profile films were largely about white men such as Steve Bannon (American Dharma), Donald Trump (Fahrenheit 11/9), Vladimir Putin (Putin’s Witnesses), and Mikhail Gorbachev (Meeting Gorbachev) — all made by male filmmakers (Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Frederick Wiseman and Werner Herzog).

Purely by existing, Taylor’s work is already a radical departure from the mainstream. But more importantly, she is unafraid to linger in uncertainty, and in this she shares a lot in common with film essayist Chris Marker, in particular his legendary series The Owl’s Legacy.

It’s an ongoing process, this democratic experiment. In Q&As following the screening of her film, Taylor says that audience members raised the issue of fake news. “That’s what Plato was also complaining about,” she says. “Not much has changed in human nature.”

Everything that humans create contains the seeds of its own destruction. From its beginning, the democratic experiment was predicated on slavery. As Cornel West explains, “Athens was a slave-based democracy. The United States, a slave-based democracy…”

But in the U.S., race and power remains an open wound. In a stentorian speech, Angela Davis talks about how the system cannot be fixed as slavery was never fully abolished in the U.S.; it simply changed form. She argues that a very different kind of democracy is needed from that first version established by the founding white fathers, and that it remains the challenge of the 21st century.

It is a point reiterated by a young black barber, Ellie Brett, who talks about the experience of prison as little more than state-sanctioned slavery. “I did nine years… I worked in a meat plant. You get paid what they call an incentive wage, 40 cents a day.” The humiliation of cuffs and collar is one thing, but the insidious effects of incarceration go bone deep. “You’re not worthy enough of human contact, that’s what missing, trying to getting guys like me to acclimate to society… so that we can survive,” Brett says. “I can’t live or work because I messed up 10 years ago?” Astra Taylor interjects, “You also can’t vote, right?”

Brett is sanguine about his experience, but underneath you can see the pain on the verge of spilling out and over. “I think that democracy is inherently flawed because people have to act it out,” he says. “Like Machiavelli said, Man is a sorry breed, they’re selfish and greedy, they’re like parasites… I’m sitting in a cage, looking at it. What are you going to do about it? You gotta fight.” Ellis talks about being involved in hunger strikes that started after prison officials tried to take away the library. “This lady came, and she told us no one can go to school anymore, y’all don’t deserve to get an education. So, we stood up and fight.”

As philosopher Wendy Brown says, “To have a democracy, there has to be a ‘we’ — you have to know who ‘we the people’ are.” That also means some people are excluded, and historically that has been based on things like race, gender and economic status, naming who’s human and who’s not human. But the nightmare of our time, she suggests, is that anti-democratic forces are now supranational, globalized, whereas, “Democracy is still operating on a grounded and spatialized domain.”

But globalism can also work for the continuation and expansion of the democratic struggle. Cornel West argues that change reverberates, echoing out like a thunderclap. “Real signs of freedom, struggle. Other folk gonna pick up on this… The enslaved people will, the workers will, the women will, the gay and lesbian brothers and sisters will, the transgender folk, the bisexual folk, all will pick up on this. Lo and behold! This is a human affair, but what does it mean? It means from the very beginning, this is a global affair!… All of these arbitrary boundaries, all of these lines of demarcation, these walls that separate, are shattered,” he says.

“All those precious folk have exactly the same values, and that’s a very different way of looking at the world.”

The people rule. Not from above, always from below. As Taylor’s film peels back the layers, stripping the thing down to bare studs and wires to reveal the foundations upon which the entire structure is built, something else begins to emerge.

Hope seems too soft a term, as there something stubborn, flinty almost, in people’s dedication to the idea of democracy. It is there in the kids applauding one of their own speaking truth to power. It is amply evident in the intelligence, warmth and gentleness that beams out of Silvia Federici, like a corona. It is there in the heated, impassioned discussion in a grad student’s living room, as people of all colours come together to declare that all lives matter. The idea is big enough to contain a world of opinions, contradiction and paradoxes.

What is Democracy? is a call to arms, but it is also a powerful and piercing reminder that, as Plato said, “Nothing beautiful without struggle.”

In fact, the struggle may be the most important part.

What is Democracy? will be shown Oct. 6 and Oct. 12 as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival. .  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Film

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